Created in God’s Image

March 6, 2019 Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Isn’t it amazing the extremes that some people will go to get noticed?

I am sure that within the last twenty years the desire to get noticed and make a name for oneself has probably increased. Due to the growth of the internet and social media outlets, anyone can put themselves out there with the hopes of being seen or followed by others. You can flaunt your life all over Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and many others too numerous to name. You can put your profile out there in the hopes of finding a date! You can post videos of almost anything to YouTube with the hope that it becomes viral.

Viral is a good word, because viruses infect and can cause damage to something that is healthy. An unmonitored use of social media can lead to a false misrepresentation of self and misguided actions. It is easy to get caught up in an alternate reality and forget that we can be seen by others! The impression we give others reflects our priorities. Most importantly, God sees us no matter the impression we are giving people. Are we acting with ourselves in mind, or are we living out the call of Jesus Christ?

This passage we hear from our gospel lesson this evening may make you squirm in your seat a little. Especially given the fact that we will soon get up and be marked with the sign of a cross on our foreheads. So much, for not letting our piety be seen by anyone else! You better be careful when you are fasting to not look dismal either. That could be hard too, if you decided to give up coffee or chocolate for Lent!

This teaching from Jesus on Ash Wednesday is part of the Sermon on the Mount where he has a prolonged oration on how to conduct yourself as a believer of God. I think that the tension that he creates is intentional so that people will start truly thinking about their actions and will begin to contemplate on his Word. We do not get to hear of the crowd’s reactions to his preaching, but I am sure that there are some slack-jawed faces out in that crowd finding it hard to believe what he is saying. Perhaps some of them even decided to get up and walk back home.  

Those same words strike us hard today! It is easy to be easily distracted from what matters the most when we have so many other voices begging for our attention. We in turn get pulled in and start begging for attention from others by trying to get the most friends, likes, or views through our various online accounts. For those that do not post, video record, or tweet, there are other ways to get noticed as well. I am sure that you know people that have a comment for anything and everything. All they must do, is walk into a gathering of people and be loud. Unfortunately, that is multiplied when they are online.

While we may go way beyond what is necessary to get noticed, we must remember that we are already noticed! Three times in our gospel lesson Jesus reminds the disciples, “The Father sees. . .” We do not have to go out of our way to get noticed for our piety. Yet, living a pious life can draw us closer to God. Alas, that is the only reason that we should be doing so. We should not be going about and showing off how righteous and pious we are to others through our prayers, fasting, or even receiving ashes.

We do these things because we know that they draw us closer to the mercy of God. A God that created us in God’s very own image! A God that desires for us to repent and turn our lives back to the one whose image we are created.

We do not have to worry about the image that we project to the world, either in real life or on social media, because God truly knows who we are. For some, that may be a scary realization. For others, it may be a relief. This time of Lent is meant to be an intentional time to draw closer to God and it begins this evening as we remember that we were created from dust and to dust we shall return. No image is greater than the love that is seen in Christ that we can then carry out into our community.

Let us pray. God of mercy, we return to you this evening and ask for forgiveness for those times we have projected false or incorrect images that do not reflect your Son, Jesus Christ. We welcome in these next forty days as a time of possibilities to be drawn closer to you. Amen.

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Jesus Levels with Us!

February 17, 2019

Luke 6:17-26

“Some years ago, on the day before All Saints’ Day, the country’s best distance runners met in Central Park. These included two old friends, Ryan Hall and Ryan Shay. Ordinarily they would be racing in the New York City Marathon, which was to be held the next day, but like other elite runners, they were competing in the marathon trials for the U.S. Olympic team.

The two men started side by side, and three miles into the race, both were near the lead. But this day belonged to Ryan Hall. Over the last few miles, he ran all alone in front, pumping his fists with joy. As he reached the finish, he raised his arms in triumph, knowing that his victory meant a berth in the Olympics.

It wasn’t until the press conference that Hall learned that his friend and mentor had collapsed at the five-mile mark. Shay had died of a heart attack at the age of 28.

Friends remembered a remarkable man who had grown up near the ironworks of northern Michigan and had retained that iron hardness. Teammates recalled how Shay had chided and pushed them to excel. The heart that had pushed them, and has in particular pushed Hall to greatness, had not been built to last. Long ago, Shay had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart. As his father noted, “The thing that made him such a great runner may have killed him.”

Blessings and woes lie close to each other. In ancient times, good fortune was often taken as a sign of divine favor. But in this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus stands that on its head. We might just as well assume that the poor, hungry and grieving are God’s beloved.”[1]

Jesus speaks truth to injustice and reveals to us what the kingdom of God will look like when we move beyond trying to one up the other.

To move to that point where humanity is living in equality is a sign of the kingdom of God. In the meantime, we are far from that! There are massive differences between the rich and poor which just seems to be growing greater. There is a renewed sense of racial hatred. I have witnessed this in Richmond as people have made disparaging remarks about our Latino neighbors. When beliefs do not line up, it seems to be an on-switch to become verbally abusive. To find Jesus amongst these practices and beliefs is nearly impossible.

These are the same issues that Jesus is addressing in his day. He knows that people have lost their way and are taking advantage of one another. It is through his sermon on the plain in Luke’s gospel that he begins to truly irk the authorities. What he has to share, they do not want to hear. The truth can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Jesus’ words are harsh when they fall on ears that are not open to the gospel message of love and grace. These words are meant to challenge us. They are meant to raise us up to a greater awareness. These words are meant to be counter-cultural.

So, what do we do when we are of this world? A world that has become more secular and the good news does not seem so good to many. How do we live as Christians in a world where Jesus’ message puts us on the outside? Outside of the wealth. Outside of the perceived power. Outside of endless blessings.

The first step has already been taken by Jesus. He was born incarnate in this world to bring the message of God’s love and grace to a world that has lost its way. Jesus comes to jar us out of our complacency. Jesus comes to remind us whose we are, and as God’s beloved children, we are already blessed beyond belief. That does not mean our blessings do not come without woes. We are still living on this side of the full in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

Ryan Shay started that race feeling blessed for the God given talent that he had, however the woe that came to him, his friends, and his family through his untimely death was incomprehensible. However, God was there to pick up the pieces and remind them of the saving love of Jesus Christ. We too will have woes. We never know what they will be.

Do we bring some of them on ourselves? You bet!

Are some out of our control? Yes!

But Jesus comes to us. He comes to a level place as the gospel tells us. He draws us even and reminds us that we too are loved. We are not called to stand on mountains and have power over others. We are not to stay in the valleys and wallow in self-pity. We are called to be in that level place with Jesus where the kingdom of God is breaking in. Where love and grace rule the day. Not wealth or poverty, feast or famine, health or sickness, have or have-not. We are called to live into that place where all are equal, and the kingdom of God shines bright.

Let us pray. Lord, you challenge us. Your words and promise bring us to points that are uncomfortable and different from many other noises in society. We pray for your guidance as we try to be part of your movement to bring the kingdom of God closer to humanity. Amen.


[1] Lawrence Wood, Blessings alongside Woes, Sundays Coming, The Christian Century

What Are You Willing to Leave Behind?

February 10, 2019

Luke 5:1-11

God comes to each and everyone of us in different manners. Jesus shows up when we are least expecting him and calls us to a life of letting go. You may have a story to share of that very moment, or you may still be waiting for such a moment. Sister Grace, in early twenties and contemplating making final vows in her spiritual community, wondered how the women ahead of her in the formation process could be sure they were ready to make this commitment. One Saturday morning, she was discussing this with a friend who was planning to make final vows in a few months. Her friend said to her, “Have you tried asking God about this?” Grace replied, “I hadn’t thought about that,” and actually went to her room to pray. When she prayed, asking if God wanted her to make final vows, she experienced her bedroom suddenly filled with light, more than the sun streaming through the windows could account for. And she felt deeply loved by God. However, this surprisingly immediate response to her prayer and the intensity of God’s love and presence frightened her and she fled her room.

Her friend noticed her pacing one of the corridors and commented, “I thought you said you were going to pray.” Grace responded, “I did, and God is in my room right now!” Her friend asked her the next logical question, “Then what are you doing out here? Don’t you think you should go back?” Grace replied, “I’ve got enough of an answer for now!”[1]

Jesus has been traveling around the country side healing and teaching. Luke shares some of these stories before the calling of the first disciples. He had to establish himself and build some credibility. The call to Simon comes as Jesus borrows his boat to speak to the people gathered along the lake shore. It is morning and all the fishermen were coming in after a night of work and I am sure that Simon and his group are not only tired, but also quite frustrated and angry. They did not catch a single thing while out that night. Now Jesus wants to commandeer his boat. He says yes, perhaps with a bit of reluctancy.

When Jesus instructs him to let down his nets, Simon reminds him that the night was not productive, but okay, I’ll humor you. Jesus surprises him a second time as he pulls in a net full of fish. So much fish that he must call his partners over so that they can fill their boat too! At this point, we would expect him to thank Jesus. Right? Nope! He more or less tells Jesus, “Go away Lord, get out of here! I am a sinner and not worthy of this generous gift!” Like Sister Grace, he cannot handle the presence of God and wants to get as far away as possible.

We are living in denial if we say we have never done something similar. The power and presence of God can be overwhelming! Sometimes, when we want to experience that power and God seems distant, we get even angrier and tell God to get lost for a while. This is our attempt to manage God in our lives, and let me tell you, it usually does not end the way that we want it to. “God, you may enter some parts of my life, but not that part!” However, we do not have a say where God shows up!

We must be open to Jesus showing up in the weirdest places that we would have never expected! We should not be surprised, because he did it time and time again throughout the gospels. He eats with tax collectors. He has conversations with prostitutes. He welcomes the sick and the dying. He speaks with gentiles and shows his love for them. His presence among the least of society is one we can easily witness in the gospels today. For Simon, he still probably didn’t quite know what he was getting into. However, he knows that he is a sinner and yet Jesus still wants him to follow him. First, he leaves behind the thought of that bed that he was going to get in after an unsuccessful night of fishing, and then once they make their way back to the shore, he leaves the boats of fish behind to follow Jesus. He left everything!

What is in your boat that you are being called to leave behind?

For Sister Grace, it was her doubts and her reluctance to truly invite God into her prayers. For me, it was a life of complacency where I would have been a store manager. Now, for some, that may be their calling. For me, I knew that God was calling me to something different. Something weird! It is in the weird that I found Christ calling me to something much fuller and richer that spoke to the life that God had created in me. Each of us need to find that same thing.

Jesus does not only call us, but he also equips us for the journey ahead. For Simon and the other disciples that follow him, he will teach them to be the fisher of people! He will continue to teach them and will prepare them to share the good news once his mission is complete. While we are sinners too, we also are equipped by following Jesus and his teachings. While Jesus may show up when we least expect it and calls us to let go of the worldly things in our lives, he will never leave us to carry out his message alone.

Let us pray. Jesus, you call us to places we would never venture without your prodding. May we be open to the Spirit empowering us to listen to where our journey may lead next. Amen.


[1] Janet K. Ruffing, Spiritual Direction, Beyond the Beginnings, pg. 37.

Thank Goodness, Christ’s Kingdom is not from this World

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November 25, 2018 Reign of Christ Sunday

John 18:33-37

I am old enough to remember much of the fanfare that surrounded the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana in the early eighties. We have witnessed that again with Prince William’s and Prince Harry’s weddings. There is a fascination that surrounds the concept of royalty. Which, if you think about it is ironic. It was the first people that came over to America several hundreds of years ago that were trying to escape that very system of monarchy! And now you can buy collectibles to celebrate these weddings and the royalty that accompany it.

Our world is enamored with fame and the thought of being a celebrity. This can be easily manifested when we view the monarchy of our sisters and brothers in the United Kingdom. It is not just royalty that we look to, but anyone that we deem to be famous. And, it starts early! There are teenagers in the social media world that have become so popular, and have attracted so many followers, that their lives are changed and not always for the better. We like to lift people up and make them “king.” However, when we do this, we often forget that there was already one raised up for us. In Jesus Christ, we find a different way; a way that is not of this world but comes to love the world.

The idea of Jesus being made a king is not a random event in John’s gospel. In the first chapter, Nathanael is called by Jesus and Nathanael says to him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (1:49) After feeding the five thousand, the people are enamored with the power and authority that Jesus encompasses. It is at this point that Jesus knows he must make his way to a different locale. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and taken him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (6:15) When Jesus makes his final entry into Jerusalem, the crowd comes to welcome him, and “they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (12:13)

The trouble occurs when we try to make Jesus into something that he is not. The Israelites did this very thing. Jesus caught them by surprise. They were anticipating a mighty warrior that was going to come and banish the Roman Empire and make all things new at that time. They were not expecting the unyielding love that Jesus bore for them and all of humanity. They were not expecting the savior of the world to go to the cross and die a gruesome death that was only used for the worst criminals.

It is easy for us to avoid the truth when there are so many other options available for us. Pilate represents the Roman Empire and he exercises his power through force. Surely, force is the only thing that is going to stop him. However, the power that Jesus comes into the world bearing is one of love. In that love, we are called to change. Our perception of reality shifts and our idea of authority is tilted on its head.

As we were reminded last week in the gospel of Mark, there will be birth pangs along the way. The shift to kingdom of God thinking is not easy. As Jesus says, his kingdom is not from this world. What a blessing that is! If his kingdom was from this world, we would not experience the evil and suffering that we do. If his kingdom was from this world, we would not hear of war, poverty, hunger, mass shootings, or the fear of others. There is hope in his kingdom not being of this world!

The disciples knew that there was something different about Jesus. As Nathanael reveals in the first chapter, there was an understanding that Jesus was the king of Israel. However, it was not a kingship like they had seen before. It is not a kingship like we have witnessed today. He expected no special treatment and did not regard himself as better than anyone else. He did not seclude himself from the people and was quite often seen eating with those in society that no one else would break bread. The Reign of Christ is one that is expressed through love. The love Christ shows for the world is reflected in the freedom that comes to all of humanity. That freedom includes the freedom from sin and the freedom from death. This freedom is everlasting and is a freedom that will not be found in any country or monarchy. It is a freedom that comes only to us through the sheer grace of God.

The grace of God comes to us born in our own likeness and walks alongside us. The grace of God brings us to the cross where we encounter the ultimate grace and love poured out for all. We are invited to be a part of this in the waters of baptism and every time we come to the Lord’s table.  It is in these gifts of the sacraments that we encounter our Lord, who is and who was and who is to come.

 

 

You Will Be Free Indeed!

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October 28, 2018 Reformation Sunday

John 8:31-36

As many of you know, I grew up in a town that was just a little bigger than Richmond. It lacked diversity, much like Richmond. And honestly, there was little to do in town, so we would quite often drive to Lansing on the weekends to go shopping or see a new movie that our little theater in town would most likely not get.

I don’t think I was much different from most people when I looked forward to getting out of the town to seek my own freedom. As soon as I got my drivers license and my own car I was able to go anywhere that I wanted. My parents even trusted me enough to drive all the way down to Cincinnati without adult supervision. When I decided to attend Central Michigan University, it was an hour and a half from home and it meant I would have the greatest freedom yet!

That freedom also came with responsibility. There were times when I questioned the freedom that I sought when I would have little money and things were just not going the way that I expected them to. The freedom that we often desire when we are younger is a false sense of freedom. It is only in Jesus Christ that we find true freedom that cannot be found elsewhere.

The Israelites think that they have it all made. They believe that everything is alright in their lives and that there is no where else they need to turn. They have not been held captive like their ancestors and all they have seen and encountered is freedom. Yes, their land may be under Roman rule, but they have been given the freedom to worship the way they choose. As long as they do not disturb those in authority. Thus, Jesus coming onto the scene is a big warning sign for them. His actions and words are starting to stir up the people and thus the freedom in which they thought they had. In truth, it is not a freedom that is anchored in the truth of God. Their sense of freedom does not reside in the truth of God, rather it resides in their own personal doing.

This was the same issue that Martin Luther had over 500 years ago now with the leaders of the church. They attempted to control everything and did not leave room for the truth that is Jesus Christ. They attempted to control grace when it was not theirs to control. They began to judge others when it was not in their right to judge.

While we think we may be free today, I am sure that you too at one point or another have been captive by some ill devised thought. We like to test the boundaries of our perceived freedom. We like to think that we are in control when really the only thing that we can control is our own personal actions. We make the decision to follow Christ and in the midst of that, there are always other distractions that attempt to steer us away from Christ. The sin that steers us away from Christ is evil. It distracts us and pulls us away from the word of God. It holds us captive in its grasp and yet, Jesus reminds us that he is present to release us from its grip.

Each and everyone of us are called to be in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Like our day to day relationships, we sometimes get out of line and make bad decisions. Despite our bad decisions, the word of God never leaves us. It is present for us to turn to in our time of need and be the foundation for us to rest in when our faith is troubled. It is in the power of the word that Martin Luther realized that we are justified by grace in our faith alone. While others may attempt to judge us, it is only in God that we must answer. While others may sometimes look at us differently, it is probably because we are following the word of Jesus Christ and walking in the way as his disciples.

As our faith grows in the word of God, we are led to freedom from the powers of sin and death. While it is in the powers of sin and death that enslave. We must learn to place our trust in our faith and the freedom found in the truth. For when we place our trust in sin, we are not free. Whenever we place our trust in death, we are not free. It is the truth that will set us free. That freedom was found in Jesus Christ for the disciples and is where we find our freedom today. It is not in our ability to move away from home. It is not in being able to decide whatever we want to do. It is in following Jesus and the way in which he is calling us to journey.

It was through Martin Luther’s revelation in the word, that he found a freedom that he had been missing. A freedom that had went on hiatus from the teaching of the church. In this revelation he saw the need to re-form the church. While Luther found this revelation in the letter to the Romans, a movement was started to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people. A gospel message that is full of grace and mercy. A gospel message that gives us freedom like we could never experience in our earthly treasures, but only embrace in a truth that sets us free. The wonderful thing is that this freedom is not just for us. If it is true for us, it is true for all of humanity. Our God welcomes all of creation into relationship and the freedom that comes in knowing the truth found in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let us pray. Ever re-forming God, you have created us, yet are far from finished in seeing us grow as disciples called to live out your word. May we be shaped by your truth so that we can embrace the freedom that can only be found in you. Amen.

Who Do You Say I Am?

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September 16, 2018

Mark 8:27-38

Who do you say I am?

This question alone could keep us in thought and prayer for a long time. I have been confronted with this question, or similar ones, several times in the past few months.

Twenty years ago, as a non-church goer.  My answer would have been simplistic and secular. Of course, I knew who Jesus was as a person. I knew he was connected to God in some manner and I knew that he was the part of the reason that Easter and Christmas were celebrated. I believed in him as a historical person and I knew that he did not look anything like the famous Warner Sallman painting, which Trinity has a copy of hanging in the front entryway.

I connected the cross to Jesus and I knew that where there was a cross I would be able to connect with a community of Christians. The cross has been depicted in many ways as you can see around the sanctuary this morning. May of you are probably wearing a cross.

Who do you say I am?

Since joining the church, I have gotten to know Jesus Christ, and I am still striving to know him on an even deeper level. We can never fully know Jesus Christ until we are willing to carry our own cross and put up our own lives. This is a tall order and not easy. I have gotten to know Jesus Christ through a point of grace since the first time that I walked into a Lutheran Church. A grace that welcomes all people, saints and sinners alike.

While grace is abundant for all of God’s people, another challenging question was asked of me this past week, “When is it as a pastor, do you remind people of God’s grace and when do you remind them of Christ’s request that they die unto themselves?”

It is easy to go heavy on the grace and look completely past your own sins, and possibly even the sin of the neighbor or family members. Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised this same concern in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, when he talks about cheap grace. Do we take grace for granted, and think that we can do anything that we want and yet still be forgiven for it? Do we fully understand the measure of what Jesus means when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me? For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

We don’t like to suffer. We want to be as far from it as possible, whether it be health, finances, or temptations that pull us into a pit of despair. If I could give up my high-blood pressure medication I would jump at it. If I could find a way to pay of the church mortgage and ease some our financial stress, you bet I would in a heartbeat. To bear a cross is really the last thing any of us would want to do. Yet, that is where we find ourselves day in and day out as Jesus challenges us with the gospel.

Do not think for one minute that the disciples had any clue what they were doing either. Peter even begins to rebuke Jesus as he makes the first of his three predictions of his upcoming death on the cross. The death that Jesus speaks of is not something that they are expecting. It definitely is not something that they want to see happen.

When Jesus instructs them that they are going to have to take up their own cross, they are left slack-jawed. The cross that they know is a device of torture. It represents shame and death! The cross is nothing that they want to associate with. Like us, the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is saying at that moment. They have encountered a lot with Jesus as they have walked throughout the country and now it seems as Jesus is telling them to take it even one step farther and possibly give up their own lives.

Their image of Jesus coming to save them from the Roman Empire has been shattered. They were hoping for a conquering warrior to go against the Roman Empire, and now Jesus tells them that he is going to be killed. Yet, the second part of what Jesus tells them seems to fall on deaf ears. He will be raised in three days. Perhaps they looked over this, because they did not know what that means either.

While the cross represents torture and shame for the disciples, it will soon come to mean something even more. In the cross they will begin to understand what Jesus has been talking about. In the cross, they will find transformation and triumph. G.K. Chesterton says, “But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape.  Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing. … The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

It is here and, in his questions, that Jesus asks the disciples, that they begin to understand his true calling in the world. It is here in Jesus’ teaching that their formation as disciples is progressing.  While Jesus still shy’s away from wanting the rest of the countryside to know that he is the Messiah, he is beginning to open himself up to those that are following in his footsteps.

We can follow in those same footsteps that the disciples walked.

We do experience grace from a loving God. However, this grace would not have been possible without the cross to show us the way. Gilberto Cavazos-Gonzalez speaks of the cross in terms of spirituality when he says, “Christian spirituality begins with the cross; The cross of Jesus Christ, our own cross, and the crosses of our neighbors, especially the poor and the marginalized. The cross is encountered and embraced as a paradoxical sign of salvation. That which often seems bitter and fatal can be sweetness and life.”[1]

By taking up our own cross, we begin to die to ourselves. When we do so, we begin to let Jesus into the recesses of our heart. As we welcome Jesus into those places that we have a hard time letting others see, we can begin to answer the question, “Who do you say I am,” in a way that opens up the reign of God for us to experience in the present.

What is your cross you are called to take up? Or better yet, how are you called to follow Jesus in the world today? How do you choose to share the Gospel that is just as alive today as it was nearly 2000 years ago? How does it affect your relationships with others and are you as open as Jesus was?

May you begin to discern this for yourself as you meditate on the various crosses in the sanctuary. May you encounter life in the cross that once represented death.

Let us pray. God of Glory, you changed the meaning of the cross for all of us as Christians. May we continue to experience the change that you work in our hearts and lives daily as we come to the cross and in repentance and seek love. Amen.

 

[1] Cavazos-Gonzalez, Gilberto. Beyond Piety, The Christian Spiritual Life, Justice, and Liberation. pg 26.

Being Opened

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September 9, 2018

Mark 7:24-37

Sometimes you just need a good smack upside the head! I don’t think there is an age limit when this option ends.

For me, one such time was while I was on internship as I was preparing to become a pastor. Every spring before my seminary sent out students to begin internship later that summer they would gather the students together and give them a handbook of requirements. This handbook placed in my hands was a very dangerous thing. I now knew what I had to do and when I had to have it done and surely it would help me coast through my year of internship.

About halfway through the year I had a visit from Pastor Jane, the Contextual Education Director at Trinity. We talked about how internship was going with my internship supervisor and what the focus of the rest of my time there should look like. This is when I received a smack upside the head. As I talked about my checklists and getting the requirements done, Jane asked me, “How are you learning to be a pastor?”

Hmm…what a great question. I had learned how to do, but I had just barely scraped the surface of what it meant to be. It was in that little question that I was opened up to a whole new experience.

This morning in our gospel lesson, we have two stories that are stacked upon each other. They are more connected than one may think at first glance. First, they are both stories of healing. Second, the people that are asking for the healing are not the ones that need the healing. The Syrophoenician woman asks for her daughter and the deaf man’s friends ask Jesus that he be healed. They are both outsiders. The Syrophoenician woman is a Gentile and we can’t say if the deaf man was, but he definitely was on the outside looking in as someone with a disability. In a culture that relies on oral tradition and few people being literate, not being able to hear or speak puts you at a major disadvantage.

What is Jesus supposed to do with these two that come to him seeking restoration and healing? The conversation that occurs between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is one that does not seem to highlight Jesus’ people skills very well. He is combative and the love that we have got to know Jesus through seems to be lacking. You could say that he even comes off as a jerk. We are left wondering what must be going on in his mind. Maybe he is tired and just needs to take a sabbath. Maybe he needs to get away and pray.

It is easy to get stuck in a rut and keep on doing what has always been done. When we do this, it is not uncommon to react negatively when we are challenged. When things do not go the way that we expect them.

To live in our own insular lives blocks others out that are different from us. The outsiders that we hear of in the gospels. The outsiders that usually get welcomed to have a seat at the table with Jesus to break bread and join in conversation. When we do this, we also close ourselves off to the possibilities that lay before us in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God that is unfolding before our very eyes. When we fail to welcome the outsider as Jesus does, we close ourselves off from the Spirit acting and moving in our lives to show us new ways to encounter Christ.

We first hear the promise in our reading from Isaiah this morning.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy (31:6).

There is one word that Jesus speaks this week that changes everything!

It is in Jesus’ natural tongue and it is, “Ephphatha!” Fortunately, for those of us that do not know Aramaic, it is translated for us within the text, “Be opened!” It is in this word that Jesus heals the deaf man so that he can hear once again and speak so that people can understand him. The man that was deaf and could not speak was now opened to the world around him. His ears were opened to hear the sounds all around him and his vocal cords were made alive so that he was able to fully communicate with friends and family.

When Jesus speaks “Ephphatha” to the deaf man, it is also reflective of the previous scene when he is approached by the Syrophoenician woman. In this encounter, it is Jesus that is opened up! His way of thinking and the way that he views the woman. While his words first come across as hard to hear, even hard to imagine they are coming from Jesus, the woman provides him with the smack upside the head that he seems to need at that moment. She opens him up to even healing Gentiles, and expanding his ministry to all of God’s creation, beyond the people of Israel. It is in her words that Jesus ears are opened and his compassion for others is expanded.

The call of Jesus for the deaf man’s ears to be opened is a call that speaks to us today. As we close ourselves off from others and stick to the things that need to be done, how are we being opened to encounter Christ and the Spirit that leads us?

That smack upside the head that I received in seminary was enough for me to be opened to more and to learn how to be. Of course, I do slip back into the doing probably more often than I would like, but the Spirit is powerful and pulls me back into being.

How have your eyes, ears, hearts, and hands been opened to the Spirit working in your life? How are we as a community opened up to serving one another and being available in times of need? I believe we have listened to God calling us to be open through many efforts as a community, including the Food Pantry at St. Augustine’s, the Good Samaritan Fund, and the Backpack Blessings program. We have also worked together for Kids Against Hunger that provides food not just locally, but throughout the world.

It is in these many ministries that we are open to the Spirit. Our denominations are called to be open as well, which is reflective in some of our taglines. The ELCA is called to serve with open hands as we realize it is God’s Work. Our Hands. The UCC encourages us to be open to hearing the Spirit guide us as we are reminded that God is Still Speaking. And the United Methodist Church could not be clearer as their tagline is Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

To witness God working in the Richmond Community is wonderful and when we are able to come together to worship and serve, the love of Christ is multiplied, and we are able to expand our voices and welcome people in to be open to a movement of the Spirit that changes lives. Together, we come to the cross and give our thanks to God for the love that was poured out for us and all of humanity through Jesus and the saving grace that we find in the waters of baptism and the meal that is served at the Lord’s table.

Let us pray. God of Community, you have knitted us together as sisters and brothers in Christ. May we walk with one another as you open up our ears, eyes, hearts, and hands to serve our neighbors and learn to love the stranger. Amen.